No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that in a few short decades, cameras would be able to produce moving pictures. No one would have contemplated the possibility that both sound and moving pictures would be broadcast through the air more easily than a message could be sent by telegraph. Few men would have even considered that mechanical intelligences vastly more complex than Babbage’s difference engine would have been processing information, so quickly, and so efficiently that the movements of creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water could be replicated with reasonable accuracy.
HG Wells could never have predicted that across the gulf of time cinematographers would regard his works with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans to make films of his books.
The problem is of course that there actually haven’t been many films made of HG Wells’s books, with the possible exception of ‘things to come’ but he worked closely with Korda on that one so perhaps it doesn’t count. There have been quite a few films of his titles though.
There are two of HG Wells’ titles that have been turned into films twice that particularly bug me, and George Pal was involved in both of their first incarnations. The first is The Time Machine, the Second The War of the Worlds.
Now both George Pal’s versions and the later 21st century versions are OK films, they are not particularly dreadful, though of course the special effects in both of Pal’s efforts now look fairly dated, and yes they all have huge chunks of the plots of Wells’ books, the problem is that they all lose huge chunks Wells‘ plots for no readily apparent reason. In Pal’s version of the time machine the Eloi, are suddenly blond haired and blue eyed, and remarkably present day looking. Though at least Pal left the time traveller living in Surrey, and beginning his journey from there. In the more recent version they are a more hybrid kind of human, but still very much looking like we are today, but the traveller starts his journey from New York. Wells wrote that the Traveller began from Surrey and the Eloi,are light blue. Not to mention that Wells wrote that the Travellers relationship with the Eloi Weena, was entirely non sexual and purely platonic.
To some extent much of this I could forgive, except that the second title has been even more mangled. The War of the Worlds, to my mind is Wells’ best literary effort. He wrote stories with better plots. He wrote stories where he developed the characters more completely, though I will freely admit characters were never his strong point. He wrote stories with more thought provoking ideas. but in the war of the worlds, the plot is good, the characters are good, the ideas are thought provoking. As a book it works better than anything else he ever wrote, that I have read at least. (I can’t think of one I haven’t but I might have missed something.)
In Pal’s version, it bugs me right off that it is set in America, it bugs me even more that it is set in the 1950’s. It seems an outrageous liberty to me to drag in ‘scientists’ trying to figure the aliens out, and trying to nuke the Martians is just plain stupid. The modern re-make is not much better, it raised considerable concerns for me that George Lucas has seriously lost his touch. Having Cruise as the lead was the first wrong step, (Cruise pretty much ruined Minority report too.) Setting it in ‘the early years of the 21st century ‘was the next one, having the Martians come up out of the ground, irritated worse than rolling naked in a nettle patch, and setting it in America was another serious annoyance, but ameliorated a little, as it was expected to some extent. Missing the opportunity to use Jeff Wayne’s Musical Score was another aggravation.
I find myself wondering why, if there was so much wrong with what Wells wrote, why they bothered to make films of his works at all. They could have made films, ‘inspired by’, or ‘based on’, much as Blade Runner, was based on Philip Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ Ironically however Ridley Scott probably stays closer to Dicks Novel than either of the Georges, or Simon Wells (Yes a great grandson, can’t even trust Wells’ family) stick to HG Wells’ plots, though Scott does tinker with the end considerably.
As I said initially they are not terrible films, they are OK, but that in the end is the problem, they end up being OK films of great books, and they are OK films, because the makers don’t trust the authors plot, or setting, and get all creative in the wrong areas. One particular example for me would be the battle In War of the Worlds between the Iron Clad Thunderchild and the Martians. Something I would love to see filmed using all the modern technology available.
Peter Jackson managed to stick close enough to the plot of LOTR, to please the majority of die hard Tolkien fans, (No mean feat) even though he had to restructure the development of narratives to fit what is a sprawling epic, where most of the characters don’t know what central characters are doing, or even where they are, into three neat films. (No mean feat either) One of his bravest decisions however was, to me, to re-make King Kong. Even braver, was his decision to leave it set in the 1930’s. But it was the right decision. It is a very good film, it doesn’t try to change very much of what most people remember of the original film, though it does add a lot, none of which however contradicts the original plot to any degree. What he does seem to do is almost put himself in O’Brian’s (Director of the original King Kong) shoes, as if he is saying to himself, “If O’Brian knew what I know, what would he do?” hence the fight between Kong and the Dinosaurs is longer and more elaborate, Kong’s rampage through New York, more convincing and dramatic.
All in all Jackson remakes the original plot of King Kong with new technology. George Pal didn‘t seem to reflect on Wells‘ at all. He just seemed to be concerned about how he could spin the story’s for his 1950’s audience. With War of the Worlds, he ended up making just another monster movie. George Lucas did better, but still seemed to be spinning the story for a 2000’s audience, and made a ‘Working man makes it despite the odds,’ plot, which the Pursuit of Happiness does way better.
There is a modern style/fashion, known as, ‘Steam Punk’ which would absolutely fit making films of Wells’ books, a mix and match of old and new, that draws some of it’s inspiration from Wells, and possibly to a greater extent Jules Verne, to begin with. So there is no real problem with finding a ‘style’ that fits Wells’s novels. I also think that there has to be some respect for an audience, a recognition that it can remember that it is watching something in a ‘fictional setting.’ Rather than what seems to have happened with Wells, that Directors think the audience needs to feel like the events could happen tomorrow, just because it is supposed to be ‘science fiction’.
It all seems to me a little like making Ben Hur, but deciding to lose the Jesus angle because so many people are not particularly religious these days, and setting it in modern day Chicago. Making Ben a steel work, and turning the Chariot race into a monster truck rally, so that it will, ‘resonate’ with a modern audience. I’m sure someone could make a reasonable film out of it, but is it really Ben Hur,? Or is it something else?
This then is my real objection, these are films inspired by Wells’ works, they are stimulated by his ideas and his plots, but they are not films of his plots, except in a fairly loose sense. I have at times wondered if, in the UK at least, they should fall foul of trades descriptions legislation. Surely it is not beyond the inventiveness of Hollywood to come up with an alternate title, whereby if they want to make a different plot, inspired by an original they can, but at least leave fans of the original with the hope that one day someone will make the original.